Roger Mustalish.

With what environmental organization are you affiliated?

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I’m president of the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research Foundation, a U.S. nonprofit with offices in West Chester, Penn., and in Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado, Peru.

What does your organization do?

ACEER’s mission is to promote environmental conservation by being a catalyst for awareness, understanding, action, and transformation. We achieve this by creating learning centers in globally significant ecosystems — such as the Amazon rainforest and the Andean cloud forest — from which we conduct environmental education programs, support basic and applied research, and protect unique habitats.

What are you working on at the moment? Any major projects?

An existing canopy walkway.

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Photo: ACEER.

Later this summer, in partnership with the Amazon Conservation Association, we will begin construction of the world’s first canopy walkway in a cloud forest. It will be an engineering marvel with a unique classroom/laboratory; when completed, faculty, students, and visitors will be able to literally walk among the treetops of the cloud forest. And then — if they are truly adventurous — they can travel downriver to our Los Amigos and Tambopata field stations, crossing seven ecological zones in the process. It will be like visiting all of the ecosystems from the North Pole to the equator!

How do you get to work?

I drive a pickup truck on my 17-minute commute to ACEER’s office on the campus of West Chester University of Pennsylvania.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

My formal training has been in environmental science and public health. In 1993, while dean of health sciences at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, I traveled to the Peruvian Amazon and ACEER on a World Wildlife Fund workshop. I was so blown away by that experience that I resigned my dean’s position to go back into the faculty and promote rainforest conservation. Shortly thereafter, I met with someone at ACEER to see how I could help. It turns out the ACEER board of directors was meeting and I was invited to speak with them. I came away with $145,000 for a research project, and within one year of that meeting was named president of ACEER.

Trekking along a rainforest trail.

Photo: ACEER.

A pivotal moment for ACEER came in 1999 when, during an expedition with the JASON Foundation for Education, I literally ran into the chief financial officer of the National Geographic Society on a rainforest trail. That moment has led to a long-term investment in ACEER by NGS. Their support — nearly $1 million to date — has catapulted ACEER into the dynamic organization we now are. It has been quite a ride!

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

I was born in Newark, N.J., but now live on a small farm in rural Chester County, Penn., west of Philadelphia.

What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?

I wouldn’t use the word “infuriated,” but rather a source for me of deep compassion is our systematic destruction of global habitat that is triggering a mass extinction of species, and even human cultures, on this planet. For so many, the driving force is staggering poverty; for others, simple greed. But in either case, it will come to haunt us and succeeding generations, unless we consider a different path.

Who is your environmental hero?

I have two: sort of a “macro-scale” hero and a “micro-scale” hero. My global hero is the Vietnamese poet and monk Thich Nhat Hahn. In his elegant little book, Peace Is Every Step, he writes so clearly and poetically about “interbeing” (all things are interrelated and no thing would exist without other things). He takes the common expression used in environmental work that we need environmental advocacy because “we are all in this thing together” and expands it to a truer, more profound expression, “We are all this together.” Thus, the violence we do to the planet we actually are doing to ourselves, since there is no way to separate us from anything else.

My local hero is Aura Murrieta, ACEER’s director of Peru programs. Aura was born and raised in Amazonia. She beat the odds by finishing school (many Amazonian girls fail to go beyond fourth grade) and works tirelessly, carefully, mindfully, passionately in village after village, school after school, making life better for one child at a time, one teacher at a time, one village at a time. It is in-the-trenches work, but it is also the work of heroes.

What’s your environmental vice?

My truck — useful on the farm, but so poor in gas mileage.

How do you spend your free time? Read any good books lately?

In addition to my ACEER “job” which is essentially full time but strictly voluntary, my “day job” is chairperson of the Department of Health at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where I also teach courses in integrative health. So free time is at a premium! I enjoy work around the farm, play a bit of piano and guitar, and in general try to be as mindful and grateful as I can be in all aspects of my life.

The last book I read was Jon Kabat-Zinn’s, Coming to Our Senses. He continues to offer effective advice and strategies for “waking up.”

What’s your favorite meal?

I love Indian curries, both to prepare and eat. As a vegetarian, the style offers so much variety.

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

Given my passion for the rainforest, cloud forest, and the woodlands on my own farm, I guess I’m a “tree hugger.”

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

That all land-use decisions must respect the intrinsic carrying capacity of that particular habitat or ecosystem. It is not too much to expect that we all live within our “ecological means” so that we and all other species have the optimal opportunity to survive.

Who was your favorite musical artist when you were 18? How about now?

I grew up with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Moody Blues, and the various configurations of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Today, I have no particular favorite artist, but rather listen to a broad collection of world music.

What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?

For TV, that’s easy — the best news show on television: The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. My favorite movie is Smoke Signals.

Which actor would play you in the story of your life?

People tell me I have a resemblance to Art Garfunkel, but given all of my Amazon adventures — and there have been a bunch — in my mind’s eye, I have to go with Harrison Ford.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

Of course, I’d like every InterActivist to consider joining an ACEER trip or making a donation in support of our work.

But in a broader vein, I would invite each reader to pause, if even briefly, to reflect on how they impact their world — not just as consumers, but as individuals, parents, friends, partners, voters, workers, etc. And to make skillful decisions in all that they do so as to foster understanding, caring, and helpful action.

Roger Mustalish, head of ACEER.

The Artful Roger

Can you describe an animal from the Amazon ecosystem and another animal from the Andes ecosystem whose status illustrates a particular environmental threat to those regions?    — Mark Stephen Caponigro, New York, N.Y.

Globally, including in the tropics, we are losing amphibians at an alarming rate; many species are headed to extinction. Other than habitat loss, a key factor may be a fungus that is killing frogs. Some research is suggesting that global warming may be a factor at work here by enhancing the proliferation of the fungus. In the Andes, the spectacled bear is in serious trouble due to rapid habitat loss as forests are cleared for agriculture.

How important is recycling to rainforest survival?    — Nancy Spears, Bossier City, La.

There are so many good examples here … I have seen magnificent trees being cut in the Amazon to be made into disposable chopsticks for fast-food restaurants in Asia. Did you know that when a large 150-foot-high tree like the kaypok is cut, it will often result in up to 1,000 other, smaller trees being felled as it falls? Yet these other 1,000 trees have no commercial value and are left to rot. Some studies have shown that even decades later, areas subjected to heavy timbering — while appearing to have regrown — are still devoid of the original biodiversity that characterized the forest prior to cutting. Imagine how important recycling becomes if we can reduce the number of wild species we cut. Other strategies include substituting abundant species of trees for those more rare (for example, seeking substitutes for mahogany) and promoting plantations on already disturbed lands rather than continuing to rely on wild species in intact ecosystems.

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen in the Amazon?    — Grist editors

Wow … impossible to really answer. I’ve been there over 50 times and still haven’t seen all the shades of green there! One of the most humbling, inspirational experiences I and others have had is atop a canopy walkway system. The Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research pioneered the first in the Western Hemisphere in the rainforest of northern Peru. At one tree platform over 110 feet above the forest floor, you can look to the horizon in all directions and see nothing but pristine forest. It blows you away. The canopy is where the vast majority of life in the rainforest is found. I remember taking a group of Peruvian school teachers up there. They were born and raised in the forest, yet broke into tears at the sight. They said they would never think about or view the rainforest the way they used to. They saw its majesty and its fragility and were literally transformed by that experience. They are not alone; it happens to so many.

Will the new walkway be sustainably built? Even though it’s for educational purposes, does adding more construction to an area that’s been so heavily logged and used concern you?    — Grist editors

Our new canopy walkway in the cloud forest will not require the cutting of any trees. The system will consist of aluminum towers connected by suspended bridges. The system is to be located on one of the largest tracts of protected cloud forests in the region, and is designed to permit study — and, frankly, a sense of awe — without harming the forest. The system’s footprint will be very small, but we hope the impact is as large as the cloud forest itself.

Has your organization promoted any research into tropical silviculture in the Amazon? Also, has the organization begun to talk with landowners regarding switching to forestry, rather than land-use conversion?    — Artem Treyger, Syracuse, N.Y.

The ACEER does not have a resident staff of researchers. Rather, we host researchers from around the world and provide dedicated lab/field space for them. At times, we also provide funds for applied research. We created the first fully integrated system of natural resources data maps using a Geographical Information System, and provided training to Peruvian universities and research institutes to build their technical capabilities that they in turn apply to their work. We created a mathematical computer model to predict where certain medicinal plants would grow best, and this has been used to foster government-funded pilot projects. We showed them, for example, where a high-vitamin-C fruit, camu-camu, would grow best. The result was a pilot import/export project that now sees sustainable harvests of wild camu-camu being exported to the U.S. as an ingredient in sports drinks.

We are currently supporting species inventory work near Iquitos in the north and at our Puerto Maldonado site in the south. Researchers at ACEER have studied things like the impact of clear-cut corridors on species migration, which directly relates to and assesses impacts from roads or logging, and we have had ongoing educational programs in villages and schools relating to non-extractive uses of the forest. At our new Los Amigos center, the researchers of the Amazon Conservation Association have an excellent Brazil-nut project that shows how to value the forest and use it standing, as opposed to destructive short-term capital gain from heavy logging and clear-cutting. Lastly, ACEER has worked with the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute in their efforts to offer sustainable alternatives to land-use conversion. In this regard, Peru is way ahead of some other Amazon countries.

From an environmental perspective, what do you think of the hot new acai-fruit trend in the U.S.? The fruit has wonderful health attributes, but is the harvesting sustainable?    — Mic LeBel, Newcastle, Maine

I think it is always valuable to show how the rainforest is more valuable standing and used sustainably rather than clear-cut for short-term gain but long-term erosion and loss of productivity and biodiversity. ACEER’s work with modeling the habitats of medicinal plants speaks to your question. When projects like acai and others, like the camu-camu fruit, first begin, there is often not a problem with relying on wild stocks of the plants. But as the practice continues, I have seen problems with keeping it sustainable when relying on wild crafting. This is true, for example, with the Irapy palm used for roof thatching. In the north, people now travel in some cases days to find wild stands, whereas in the past, it was common everywhere. That’s why you sometimes see efforts at plantation growing. The key example here is with hearts of palm, a wonderful, flavorful salad. But to secure a serving means cutting the whole tree down. This is not sustainable and has led to a certification program verifying that the hearts of palm are collected from plantation trees. Make no mistake about it — the Amazon is a treasure trove of medicinal plants and represents a significant alternative to logging, but even here we need to understand and work with the carrying capacity of the ecosystem.

Why not get together an organization to ask rich countries to buy environmentally important land and have it set aside forever through an internationally agreed settlement with the nation that the land is in?    — Keith Foster, Jacksonville, Fla.

Actually this is being done, though more could be done. The Nature Conservancy is a good example of an organization that brokers such deals. To Peru’s credit, there are vast tracts of protected land in their part of the Amazon — hundreds of millions of acres. But it is sometimes the staggering poverty in some South American and African countries that forces governments to open large areas for development.

We need look no further than the U.S. to see the issues at play. Our long-term energy demands cannot possibly be satisfied by the resources in the Alaskan wilderness currently under threat of oil exploration and drilling, yet it seems like a quick fix and is being pushed by some in the government rather than tackling the excessive energy use of the country and promoting more conservation and innovative technology. Also here, with only about one to two percent of our old-growth forests still standing, it is a struggle to come up with a way to place them off limits to timbering. If we struggle with these issues, imagine a poor country with huge needs for resources and improved quality of life. I work in some villages where the annual per capita income is $50.

Ultimately, we need a combination of conservation areas coupled with education and economic opportunities for the people living there. Once people have their basic needs met and fully understand their stake in a sustainable world, things will begin to change for the better.

What are the challenges of being a partly U.S.-based organization, both as you work with the government in Peru and as you speak with locals? What are the benefits?    — Grist editors

As an international organization, we can bring funds, donors, technology, and collective wisdom from around the world to partner with locals, though never forgetting their key role in participatory decision-making. This is an advantage. However, centuries of exploitation by foreigners makes some local people understandably leery of what the underlying motives really are. After many, many years of abuse and neglect, one village could not believe that we wanted to help them simply because we cared and it was the right thing to do. Even now, we see problems with some enterprises that come into an area supposedly to help, yet a small minority benefits while the majority is unchanged. This sows seeds of suspicion. Fortunately, ACEER enjoys a good reputation thanks to our dedicated Peruvian staff and a commitment to making the people we work with full partners.

Does your organization seek mostly to provide education for local residents or tourists?    — Grist editors

We began by offering workshops for North Americans so they would be inspired to help with conservation through donations and/or action. We then used the revenue generated to begin helping rural Amazonian schoolchildren with materials, books, pencils, etc. It soon became apparent that teachers were the other half of the equation in Amazonia, so we developed the first culturally sensitive, Amazon-based environmental education curriculum. Our initiatives have now grown to include teaching Latin American university students and U.S. children and teachers. Since we are all stakeholders in rainforest conservation, our efforts are far-reaching. To date, more than 1 million lives worldwide have been touched by ACEER programming.

How do you work with the native people of the Amazon region?    — Grist editors

We always remember that it is their village, their lives, and that they are the local stakeholders. We do not use a monolithic approach to working, but rather employ a village-centered strategy. Our Peruvian staff is skilled at building trust, explaining who we are and what we do, and determining if and how we can be of assistance. We always make sure projects are respectful of the decision-making structure of the village and that the project is grassroots, rather than top-down. Too often, villages are told what is best for them by a central authority and aren’t asked what they want/need. We’ve had great success by empowering local peoples to articulate their needs and seeing how we can partner with them to make it a reality. Education and the support of village community projects — i.e., medicinal-plant gardens, libraries, and small-scale farm projects — are what we typically focus on. In northern Peru, we are working with a consortium of villages in the Itaya watershed to help the villages create a conservation reserve.

As a vegetarian, I am forever searching for a positive method by which others might be encouraged to accept a meat-free diet for its beneficial effect on the environment. Are you able to promote vegetarianism in your work, and if so, how?    — Marylou Noble, Portland, Ore.

We certainly discuss how poor a resource choice it is to convert the nutrient-poor rainforest into agriculture, and there is ample evidence of the negative impact of vast cattle operations in former rainforest habitats. We don’t serve rainforest beef at our facilities, and we provide opportunities for people to visit both vegetable and meat markets to see how their food is prepared and where it comes from. But we do not specifically promote vegetarianism as a conservation strategy. In our health-related workshops conducted with West Chester University, we have more opportunities to discuss the environmental pros of a vegetarian diet.

Ultimately, though, I personally simply model vegetarianism in my own life and that prompts questions as to why. This gives me opportunities to explain how I came to my own choice; it sometimes prompts others to give it a try.

You mention Thich Nhat Hanh, who tries to remind us that “we are all in this thing together.” However, isn’t the dominant thinking in North America really that we can separate ourselves from “nature” and that everything has a technological “fix”? Or on the “other” side, perhaps a “divine” destiny that somehow excuses our abuse of the natural world? How do you break through these attitudes effectively? Have you some ways that you elaborate and teach about “interbeing” in experiential and conceptual ways?    — Paul Kuchynskas, Brooklyn, N.Y.

Excellent question. What’s important to keep in mind is that our propensity for thinking that we are separate from nature seems strongest in Western cultures and is not necessarily shared by all cultures. Isn’t it ironic that we can heavily pollute our air, water, and food, and when we get sick from them, we are so surprised? Our reliance on and inseparability from our environment is as close as our next breath; we take so much for granted here. To break through this effectively cannot really be done through edicts, laws, or even market pressures, though these are used in the short term. Edicts and laws create an us/them mentality without challenging each person to fully understand their role as stakeholders in a clean environment.

One could get easily discouraged but for me what works is to, as Gandhi said, Be the change you want to see in the world. Want peace? Act peacefully — start with yourself, your family, your community. Want a sustainable environment? Live in a sustainable manner — start with yourself. When you do this, something wonderful happens: you give others permission to live the same way, to seek peace, to seek sustainability. And when this happens, a shift starts to occur. Maybe not a great one at first, but a real one for sure and this builds and builds.

At ACEER and at West Chester University where I teach, I create experiential opportunities and invite people to participate and see for themselves. I could write or lecture ad nauseum about interbeing, but when I bring individuals to the rainforest on an ACEER workshop, I don’t need to say anything; the forest is a powerful teacher. I have seen time and time again people come away with a realization of interbeing in a real, personal way by actually living it. It’s like that commercial — airline ticket: $850; jungle lodges: $250; experiencing interbeing and the reality of your place in the universe: priceless.